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In search of the marketing unicorn

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We are a small country. Many of our businesses run increasingly lean marketing teams. So how do they recruit for the right mix of skills they need?

At home, Mr Jones and I are lucky to be planning a much-needed bathroom renovation. We’ve found a builder we like. He seems like the type of builder who can turn his hands to most things. However, he will bring in specialists for the specific trades – plumber, tiler, gib-stopper, painter, and so on.

Well, you’d generally expect that, wouldn’t you? Not only because of the regulations about registered tradies, but because we know that certain things are best left to the experts.

A painter might be a good gib-stopper, but the gib-stopper who gib-stops all the time, not half the time, is probably the better gib-stopper. A fair assumption, don’t you think? The builder could probably do the plumbing, but won’t we feel better if he leaves that in the capable hands of a professional plumber? You can bet your dripping tap we will.

We have developed the much-celebrated can-do attitude in New Zealand, born out of the limitations of our size. A little bit of expertise and a willingness to give things a try has made us champion those with broad-ranging capabilities, and that’s not a bad thing.

But is marketing communications and advertising becoming particularly prone to building teams of generalists and undervaluing specialist expertise?

I’ve lost track of the ads I’ve seen for hybrid roles in marketing teams. The skills required to develop a communications strategy, for example, are somewhat different from the technical intricacies of managing Facebook ads, but I completely understand that financial constraints increase the need for a multi-tasker.

The one that gets me is when recruitment ads ask for strategists or managers who are adept with InDesign, the highly specialist design software that designers use. These are completely different skills, surely? Yes, there are a few amazing designers who are equally adept with big-picture planning as with coming up with highly effective design concepts. But the number of people who are equally capable and passionate about both skills sets is even fewer.

Australian TV’s ‘MasterChef Back To Win’ is drawing to a close and highlights the issue in the kitchen environment. All the contestants can cook pretty much anything far better than the majority of us. But they each have their particular strengths and preferences. The capable dumpling-maker might produce the occasional great parfait, but the pastry chef will nearly always make a perfect one.

A small restaurant might only have a couple of chefs, each having to tailor their skills to the menu. Or, more sensibly, the menu is tailored to their skills, avoiding cooking styles that aren’t in their repertoire or buying in. (I’m picturing a carrot cake that’s a familiar feature in numerous Hamilton cafés…!)

The same applies with the legal profession. A property lawyer could give you basic advice over a dispute with your boss but, when push comes to potential shove, you’d talk to an employment lawyer.

Similarly, having the right tools doesn’t mean you have the skills to use them. Creativity, visualisation, interpreting a brief, understanding what appeals to different audiences, the intricacies of good typography, illustration or visual storytelling – these are just a few of the essential traits for a good designer. Having these skills is completely different from the ability to use InDesign or other specialist design software. I can use a pair of scissors but you wouldn’t ask me to be your hairdresser.

When businesses are growing or are forced into being lean and nimble, I completely understand the desire to recruit someone who can bring as many skills to the table as possible. But so many job ads seem very unclear on what’s the priority.

I suspect employers are hedging their bets. It’s like the house-hunters on TV lifestyle shows who rock up to Kirsty and Phil with a completely unrealistic wish-list. On a rare occasion, the dream home that ticks a long list of boxes may well be available. But the likelihood is that compromise is essential and some adjustment around what’s truly important helps them get close enough to their vision.

We’re very lucky in New Zealand, particularly in the Waikato, to have an incredible pool of talented people across all fields of marketing communications and design. There is a place for generalists and that elusive marketing unicorn is certainly not a mythical beast. But, prioritising the needs you have for your business will help in the search for the skills you really need.

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About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz